When I started working with the Million Mom March in Sept. 1999, reporters would ask me if I had ever been a victim of gun violence and I explained that I came to the movement not as a direct victim in grief but as a concerned mother and citizen. After watching children as young as kindergarteners threatened by gun violence on news reports, I felt the need to act, not just cluck at the TV. Yes, I had lost a distant cousin, a sweet man who in a moment of pain, left his children fatherless but that connection was slight compared to the women I dealt with who had lose parents, spouses, children and grandchildren. Gun violence had not truly crossed my threshold.
Before the Great Recession, I worked at an educational facility which housed three separate schools for children with issues ranging from severe autism to behavior issues where they had been removed from their schools. I did vocational assessments of disabled students to ascertain what skill sets they had that could be transferred into jobs skills, so that when they graduated school, their vocational rehabilitation counselor could help guide them towards further training and employment that was appropriate for them. I loved my job.
Like any other school setting we would have drills so that, supposedly, we could be prepared for any emergency. For an intruder emergency, we locked the door, pulled the blinds and placed the children against the wall so that they would be less likely to be seen or injured.
And so it came one day, three years ago, that the intruder alarm went off. The children were terrified but followed our instructions as we followed procedure. There's nothing like the feel of trying to quickly but quietly turn a lock because you don't know if the intruder is outside your door. And suddenly going to the window to close the binds is an act of sheer courage. In that moment, my supervisor and I realized something that had never occurred to us -- one wall had the door, the opposite side was a row of plate glass windows all the way across. We positioned ourselves so that we had as much protection as possible and placed ourselves between the kids and the room.
I can now tell you from experience what it's like when you know that there's someone in your school with a gun. You listen to every sound. You watch for any movement. And you pray like hell.
Time doesn't move. You could live lifetimes between the movements of a second hand. And you do. You live the life you have had up until now. You live the life you wanted to have with your family. You imagine all the birthdays, graduations, weddings, vacations, hopes, sorrows and woes that you may not share with your loved ones if this goes badly.
After every eternity, the all clear finally sounded and I was sent to find out what had gone on. And the story of it panicked and enraged me to no end.
One school housed the significantly mentally disabled, teens and young adults who we had never worked with because their disabilities were so profound that they would be cared for their entire lives. While every student in that room was in their teens, not one of them was emotionally or mentally above the age of 3 or 4.
One of the boys I'll call Matthew. He was 14 with a mental age of 3. He was sweet and funny and like to see how mechanical things worked, which meant that if he got hold of a stapler or cell phone, well, you just hoped you found all the parts. He loved when the local police or firetrucks would go by because he loved the lights and sirens and he loved when they would visit the class.
That day, Matthew knew that his class was having 'Show and Tell'. The students would bring (or their parents would send with them) some item from home to see. It could be a favorite toy, a picture, anything.
Matthew's parents forgot about 'Show and Tell' but Matthew didn't. He wanted something to bring.
And that's when he saw his fathers' loaded handgun sitting on the coffee table in the living room.
He was sure that no one in the whole class had ever seen one so he tucked it into his backpack beneath his peanut butter sandwich and his diapers. His mother hadn't noticed as she bundled him up and put him on the school bus to school. Since the severely disabled often either came through a different door or, if they came through the front door, didn't go through the metal detectors, no one knew as he walked into school. No one knew until the time came for 'Show and Tell' and he raised his hand to go first, reached into his backpack and took the semi-automatic out and held it up he could show it to his class. When the teaching assistant saw the gun, she hit the silent alarm as per protocol.
Beth, his teacher, knew the minute she saw the gun that this was no toy that Matty had brought from home. She walked over to his table, calmly asked if she could see it and took the gun from him. She must have turned white because Matty asked, "Did I do something wrong?"
Beth handled the situation with the grace of angel and was able to keep the class filled with disabled students, including Matthew, calm and unaware that this was a potentially dangerous situation and then quickly removed the gun from the room. She was magnificient.
The police arrived and they questioned Matthew about why he brought the gun. 'For show and tell', he told them earnestly.
'Where did you get it?" they asked. "It was on the coffee table."
"Whose gun is it?" "My daddy's."
"Did you load it?" "No. But my daddy showed me how to point and fire it!"
I have no doubt that the police officers, who understood just how disabled Matty was, were as dumb-founded as we were when Matty proudly announced that he had been taught to fire a gun. This boy, who at 14, who would never be able to live independently, whose reasoning was on the level of a toddler, had been taught how to pull the trigger of a gun...by his own parent. A parent who while being well aware he had a severely disabled child in his home, left a loaded semi-automatic laying on the table in the living room, like a toy.
And the cruel irony was, because our state didn't have child access laws, instead of the irresponsible gun-owning parent going to jail for placing lives at risk by leaving a gun out and loaded, the child who had no idea what was wrong had to be taken to jail. While I know that there are some truly bad acts done by people in police uniforms at times, we had the benefit of dealing with not only professional, but truly humane officers of the law who understood that, in this case, the wrong person would have to be taken into custody. Understanding that Matty was so fragile and so innocent of any wrong-doing in this, they made what they had to do more of a field trip than an arrest. And while he was scared by the experience, he was not traumatized, as he well could have been. He was placed in a separate room, away from others but close to the officer's desk where he could be seen and given reassurance until his mother could post bail.
The school staff left school that day changed. Even as we were eternally grateful that no harm had come to any of us or our kids, everything was different. This place no longer felt safe. We did not feel safe. The world had shifted.
No child ever encounters a gun without it leaving the hands of an adult, an adult who should be held legally responsible for the care, use and storage of firearms in his possession. Because of an irresponsible gun owner, the lives of over 100 teachers, staff and students, including his own child, were placed at risk. Because of a quick and calm teacher, those lives were saved.
The activism is no longer impersonal for me. It's not academic, not second hand. Now it's the bitter taste of panic on your tongue, the sweat running down your back, the sound of your heart beat in your ears, and the prayer on your lips that you will live to see your loved ones ever again. It's the sound of a frightened and confused child who was made to pay for the sins of his father who cared more for his guns than the life of his child. It was no longer someone else.
The threshold had been breeched. Now and forever after, it was personal.
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
- November 04
- A progressive woman wishing to voice her opinions without losing a job or getting yams thrown at her across the Thanksgiving table.
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